John Ruff: "In the Dark Room"



     —for Gloria Ruff

Imagine a shrunken moon in a tumbler of bourbon
and you get the effect—how the jaundiced leer
of the safe light in this starless, womb-like place
turns everything it touches into effigy and emblem.

Enlargers wrapped in plastic stand sentinel like bronzes,
a memorial without faces marking the shoreline
of the unborn, while  trays of chemicals shimmer
in a row like a trout stream.  Water from the faucet

filling the wash brims over into the basin—
you might think you’re in a cave, or somewhere
in the old quarter hearing a fountain. Imagine
what you will, that seeing is believing,

that this midwifery you manage making memory
appear is really magic.  Soon the charm wears off
and you begin to think through the negative,
the reversal of light and dark becomes second nature

and your eye for what’s absent or over-exposed.
You live in dread of dust, in your hair, your clothes,
in words you barely utter averting your face
from your own negative as if from a wound.

It exhausts you, the tedium and tricks
and the enlarger’s electric hum as its owl’s eye
sears what it sees.  Each print begins the same,
a random scrawl of sticks inscribed in snow,

then a gray infection spreads, nesting
like a rapidly aging face.  A darkening smear
edges out into a bowl, you start to see
the thighbone of a boy and then the boy,

the background’s back, the car, the building,
the street sign out of focus on the wall: it’s much
as you imagined it or what you remember,
always something more and something less. 

You know that as you ferry it through the stop
and then the fixer; if you left it in the wash
you might never see its flaws and come to love it.
You put it through the dryer and take it outside,

where under less forgiving light you see
what work remains—usually some little thing
that can’t be fixed.  At some point you abandon it,
or try to cut a deal with yourself

to look away.  It never fails, you send yourself
back in there, to see if you can brush that hairline
fracture off the negative, or try to bleach
more nuance from a stone. 


John Ruff has had poems published in Seneca Review, Poetry Northwest, River City, and elsewhere.